RMIT University researchers have challenged widely-held beliefs about the connections between homelessness and mental illness in a groundbreaking study.
The research paper by Dr Guy Johnson and Professor Chris Chamberlain will be published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues (Autumn, 2011).
Dr Johnson and Professor Chamberlain used information from a study of 4,291 homeless people in their research.
They found only 15 per cent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 per cent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.
Dr Johnson, a Senior Research Fellow with the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) at RMIT, said the findings challenged the community perception that mental illness was the primary cause of homelessness.
'Our research shows the vast majority of people do not have mental health problems before becoming homeless," he said.
'Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people.
'But the claim that most homeless people are mentally ill – or that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness – sends the wrong message to policy makers about the services that are needed to help people out of homelessness."
The Australian Research Council-funded study, which used case records of 4,291 people using two homelessness services in inner-Melbourne, also found:
78 per cent of those who developed mental health issues after becoming homeless were 24 or younger when homelessness first occurred
63 per cent of the young people who developed mental health problems after becoming homeless also had substance abuse issues
80 per cent of the sample had been homeless for one year or longer and 50 per cent had been homeless for two years or more
Dr Johnson said focusing too heavily on mental health deflected attention from the more pervasive structural causes of homelessness, such as family breakdown, insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing.
'For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena – and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach," he said.